Sydney Writers Festival 2019, Live and Local (Session 3)

And now my final event from the Sydney Writers Festival live-streamed (#SWFLiveAndLocal).program at th National Library of Australia.

“I do not want to see this in print”, Sunday 5 May, 4.30pm

Panel: Annabel Crabb (convenor), with Samantha Maiden, Sharri Markson, Niki Savva

Niki Savva, The road to ruinAustralian journalist Annabel Crabb, as cheeky as ever, introduced the session as being one of the last events in this Festival of lying! (You may remember that the festival theme is “Lie to me”) However, she then went on to say that the focus of the session would be modern political reporting. Her panelists were all established Australian journalists (click on their names to see their Wikipedia entries.)

Crabb got the conversation going by asking whether political lying is different now to what it was in the past? That set them off. It was a lively, respectful discussion involving four women who are clearly passionate about political journalism.

One of the issues about “modern” lying concerned politicians saying things at one time that they revoke later. An example was Julia Gillard’s saying there’d be no carbon tax, and then introducing one. The journalists felt the best policy is always honesty: Gillard should simply have said that yes, she had made that statement, but that circumstances had changed and now there would be a tax. A common circumstance where this sort of lying happens are leadership challenges. The problem is that the politician may be planning to challenge, but is not ready at the time the journalist asks, so they feel forced to lie.

But, Savva asked, isn’t it better to just tell the truth, rather than undermine the political process by lying. Crabb noted that we all now know the language of leadership challenges and so no-one believes their denials.

More egregious lies, according to Crabb, are those where a journalist is given information “in confidence” or “off the record” that the politician denies when asked publicly. For example, Peter Costello had told a journalist he would challenge for leadership one day, but when asked publicly he said he would never challenge. The challenge for journalists in all this is protecting their sources, because trust goes both ways. Samantha stated that “you have to hold your nerve” which I felt was code, in part, for “bide your time”! It’s all a game in the end – and not a game I would ever want to play. However, we need journalists to suss out the truth for us.

Of course, journalists aren’t squeaky clean. There are co-dependent and lazy journalists, they said, but there is also the problem of not enough time, the sped-up news cycle, and that there are fewer journalists.

Crabb moved on to the public’s disaffection with politicians and political journalists, as exemplified by the recent social media attack on journalist Patricia Karvelas over a text from politician Barnaby Joyce. A panelist added the propensity of viewers of the ABC’s The Insiders being quick to criticise. Why does the public not recognise that journalists have contact/relationships with politicians in order to obtain information, Crabb wondered? Maiden put a positive spin on these attacks saying that “in the age of social media you have the joy and pain of knowing what people think about you”! You just need to ignore people being mean to you on Twitter. (Easier said than done sometimes, I suspect.)

Markson discussed her story on Barnabay Joyce and his affair. She explained how long her investigation took –  it started long before the pregancy. Journalists must be sure the story can stand up, or they lose their job. Verifying all the information wasn’t easy, she said. She also explained that she needed to clear working on the story with her editor, for both approval and support. After the story came out, and was clearly the “truth”, Joyce apparently considered a defamation case! Later in the conversation, she reiterated the battle involved in getting any story into the paper. So many hoops! (And then, when you finally get there, “you get smashed in Twitter”.)

This sort of detail about the process was illuminating for outsiders, but Savva asked the important question: was the story politically relevant? I presumed she didn’t think it was, and nor, they said, did journalist Peter Hartcher, but Markson argued that it was because it demonstrated hypocrisy, given Joyce’s position on family values, his arguments against the cervical cancer vaccine for fear it encourages promiscuity among women, etc.

The panellists shared many other recent examples of how journalists obtain stories, of their relationships with their sources, and of how they manage confidentiality (which can include obfuscating the “real” source by using generic terms like “senior MP” etc). Their passion for their work was palpable, but so was their sensitivity to the humans involved, to the implications of different behaviours, and their awareness that it’s not sometimes only about “the truth” but how something looks. (Tony Abbott and Peter Credlin’s relationship being a recent example.) Relationships can be misconstrued. There was a lot of detail of interest to Aussies who know these cases, but the bottom line was the balancing act involved. It was a Niki Savva contact who gave the title for the session: “but I don’t know if I want to see this in print”!

We ended with a Q&A, which mostly revealed more of the same. One however asked where were the reports on policies, particularly policy comparisons. Crabb said “on the ABC website”! Maiden said that she liked writing about policy, and did indeed write such articles, but that, realistically, this writing doesn’t get as many clicks!

Another asked about the Fourth Estate’s role in holding the government to account. Why do journalists, then, call Manus Island an “offshore processing centre” when detainee, and award-winning author, Behrouz Boochani, says that he’s never been processed, that it’s a prison. The journalists replied that we could be Orwellian about language, but they do need to use the names used by the government. They gave examples though where journalists – such as Laurie Oakes – have pushed the government, forcing it to account.

Finally, a questioner asked about the role of the public service. Savva explained that public servants provide the facts, and suggest the questions that might be asked, but that the political staff dress up the information “in a more palatable fashion.” Hmm…

The session was, then, packed full of case studies familiar to the audience. The women were articulate, passionate and bold! Indeed, the clear message that came out of the session was that journalists must be bold, tough, and, as Maiden said early on, must be able to hold their nerve. It’s not a pretty job, but, done properly, it’s an important one. The more we readers understand the challenges and the pressures, the more we might support journalists – and be willing to pay for their journalism.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian Media Hall of Fame

When I was a young twenty-something library student, I learnt a new word – serendipity. It, means, essentially, finding things by accident, and was apparently coined by Horace Walpole back in 1754. It’s one of the best things about research I think – unless, of course, you are so focused you have no time for accidental discoveries.

Louise Mack, 1890s

Louise Mack, by Kerry & Co, 1890s (Photo:
National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23474744)

However, this is not a post on serendipity, per se, but on a serendipitous find I made while doing some research for one of my posts for Bill’s AWW Gen 2 week. The post was on Louise Mack’s book Girls together, and in my searching I found an entry for her on a website that was new to me, the Australian Media Hall of Fame. So, I checked it out, and found it an interesting and rich site.

The Hall of Fame was created in 2011 by the Melbourne Press Club. Its About Us page says it

comprises reporters, editors, broadcasters, photographers, cartoonists and commentators that have made a significant contribution to the development of Australian media.

This is beautifully broad I think.

My rough count shows that it currently has around 240 inductees, of whom, I estimate, less than 15% are women. Not good, but probably reflective of the period it covers?

Anyhow, its aim is (and I’m paraphrasing) to

  • highlight the work of these media legends,
  • show the historical importance of strong and independent journalism, and
  • ensure that such journalism continues.

I’m not sure how well publicised it’s been outside of the profession, but given it’s on the ‘net, I guess more and more people will discover it. Meanwhile, I’ll do my best to raise some awareness. It’s a nicely presented site – at least in terms of what I look for …

About us

I like sites that tell you clearly who they are and what they are about. The About us page doesn’t really tell you who the Melbourne Press Club is, but it tells you what you need to know about this work it’s doing. It also tells us who the judging panel is, and who they want to honour:

people who have made an impact. Inductees must have helped shape the history of a significant news organisation, the craft of journalism, a  town, city, State, nation or the world. Sustained excellence helps, but is not enough. The Hall of Fame identifies game-changers. The Hall is open to journalists, editors, publishers, broadcasters, producers, artists, photographers or others who have had a significant impact by working in the media. Individuals have been inducted for a truly memorable single piece of work or for six decades of outstanding journalism; at each extreme they have made a big impact.

Finding inductees

Of course the main reason for coming to this page is to check out the Inductees, and I like this section of the site. The main Inductees page has an introduction, followed by an alphabetical portrait display of the inductees. If you are looking for a name you can find it easily.

However, it also has an excellent search (filter) function – by genre, era, and region – which enables you to refine your search to an area that specifically interests you and which also facilitates serendipitous finds!

The Genre filter is particularly interesting. It really means, in my words, the professional area the inductees have been honoured for, which are:

  • Broadcasters
  • Business journalists
  • Cartoonists/illustrators
  • Commentators
  • Editors/publishers
  • Photographers/cinematographers
  • Reporters
  • Sports journalists
  • War correspondents

The Eras are: pre 1900; 1900-1918; 1918-1948; 1945-1980; post 1980. The era seems to draw from the date of birth of the inductee, not their era of main activity. Given some have very long careers, this makes some sense … but it has its limits.

The Regions reveal that this is, not surprisingly given its origin, primarily an eastern-states activity: NSW, Victoria, ACT, Other.

So, a pre-1900 search produces some names of interest to me, including suffragists Louisa Lawson and Catherine Spence – but, I didn’t stop there and had fun with all sorts of searches


However, while a decent searching capability is important, it’s only worth doing if the information provided is useful – and I’d say it is. The information can vary a little depending on the person but it usually includes a brief outline of the inductee’s career, a longer biography, still images, and recommended further reading, including links, such as to their Australian dictionary of biography entry if there is one. For some there is also a video of their induction (regardless of whether they were present, as some have long gone).

Take, for example, Catherine Spence. She is described as “a leading suffragist, a social and political reformer, novelist and journalist” and can be found under the Genre of “reporter”. Her page includes a biography by Women’s Studies academic, Susan Magarey, four lovely images, and a list of Further Reading.

Besides the actual information provided about the inductees, the value of sites like these also lies in who is included – in terms of quantity and quality. My sense is that the site – and people are added each year – includes many of the names I would expect to find there – and then some. I loved, for example, finding combat cameraman and cinematographer, Damien Parer, who filmed Australia’s first Oscar-winning film, Kokoda Frontline, listed. It really is a fun site – for Aussies anyhow – to potter around.

But look, my aim here is not to list all the treasures there are to find here (nor share all my trips down memory lane much as I’d like to), but to just tell you that the site exists. Do check it out if you are interested.

Sydney Writers Festival 2018, Live-streaming (Session 1)

May is such a busy month for birthdays and anniversaries in the Gums world that I hardly ever get to the Sydney Writers Festival, even though it is not much more than 3 hours drive away. I was consequently thrilled to discover that this year the National Library of Australia, Canberra, would be one of its live-streaming sites (#AWFLiveAndLocal) – and I was determined to support it (as well as attend because I wanted to). Overall, some 15 sessions were streamed over three days to around 35 sites.

This year’s theme is “The year of power”, one which is close to the revived Canberra Writers Festival theme of the last two years, “Politics, Power, Passion”.

Conflicting Narratives, Friday 4 May, 3pm

Panel: Ben Taub, Alexis Okewo, Alec Luhn, Ben Doherty (MC)

Sydney Writers Festival 2018This session was billed as being about “the role of storytellers in a time of ongoing conflict, terrorism and refugee crises.” The panelists, for those of you who don’t know them, were New Yorker writer, Alexis Okewo, who has written about extremism in Africa in her book A moonless, starless sky; the Moscow-based reporter for The Telegraph, Alec Luhn; and another New Yorker writer, Ben Laub, who writes about Syria and the jihadi movement in Europe. The moderator, Ben Doherty, writes for The Guardian.

The discussion started with Ben asking each panelist about his or her recent work. Okewo spoke about the moral complexities faced by people in extreme societies, arguing that the decisions they have to make aren’t simple. Individuals often aren’t all-victim or all-perpetrator and can be forced to commit violence. She talked about the aftermath, about how you live after terrible things (which made me think of Aminatta Forna’s The hired man, my review).

Taub talked about Syria, and how the Rome Statute is clear about what you can and can’t do in conflict. The problem is, however, that Syria isn’t a member of the International Criminal Court (ICC), and that while there is “no ambiguity in international law”, Russia “protects Syria” at the UN Security Council. He noted that although there are currently geopolitical obstacles to pursuing accountability, this doesn’t mean you can’t collect evidence for later.

Luhn clearly confronts similar problems, asking how do you resolve problems when countries don’t agree on fundamentals. It’s more than simply “trying to beat the Russians at their disinformation game.”

Discussion then moved on to processes, such how journalists do their research in such tricky regions. They all agreed that journalists’ main job is to find reliable/trustworthy sources, and that there is a lot of newsworthy material out there “if you know the right people.” Okewo spoke of the difficulty of getting into the remote regions, for example, where Boko Haram is operating. Obtaining good information is particularly difficult in places where “the government is broken” and “resistant to being transparent.” The narrative regarding Boko Haram, for example, tends to be that it didn’t happen, but is a political plot.

Laub talked about the need to use trusted sources, some of which can come via NGOs. However, he did comment that the narrative you get can be “true but not the whole story”.

Related to this, and scattered throughout the conversation, were discussions about what readers can trust. Luhn, in particular, emphasised the importance of teaching media literacy. (My friend and I felt that this is something that’s surely always been taught. Of course, the environment in which we apply assessment techniques keeps changing, but the principles remain the same.) Responding to a question during the Q&A about what readers can trust, Luhn (I think) said that the best thing is to read widely because each media form/outlet has pluses and minuses. It comes back to media literacy, and understanding different outlets.

Another questioner from the Q&A wondered whether it would be possible to have a rating system for journalists, like we have for, say, Uber drivers. MC Doherty was not convinced about this. He wondered who would make the assessment, and worried that ratings could affect freedom of speech. Luhn pondered an organisation like UK’s OFSTED. He also said, though, that we need to trust the professional standards of the traditional newsroom and non-profit journalism centres.

Luhn, I think, quoted Churchill’s “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”

From here, the discussion moved on to journalists’ safety, an issue of critical importance if we are going to get reporting from the ground. Alexis, the only woman on the panel, had quite a different spin on this: women journalists, she said, can be threatened by their own sources. They must trust that the people they are reporting with won’t hurt them. She also talked about dealing with vigilantes, about writing on people who are doing admirable but also disturbing things! You can’t fully trust them.

Luhn commented that it’s important not to work alone but journalists are increasingly are doing just this. He mentioned the Rory Peck Trust and the “hostile environment” training they offer freelance journalists. (The things you learn!)

Laub, I think, talked about relying on locals – drivers etc. What happens after you leave can be problematic, he said, because these people can face retribution for working with foreign media. Journalists need to continue the relationship after they leave. On the other hand, people, such as your fixers, can turn on you.

The session ended with quite an engaged Q&A, some of which I’ve included above. It ranged from questions about journalism itself – including one asking for advice for young writers – to questions about the regions the journalists are working in and the causes of the problems those regions are facing. The panel talked about Russia’s troll factory, and the future of Syria for example, but I’m going to close here!

It was inspiring to hear this bunch of engaged – and brave – young journalists talk about their work and their profession.

PS: I apologise if I’ve wrongly ascribed the speaker. I mostly captured the speaker’s name, but I slipped up a couple of times.

Festival Muse 2018: Turn me on

Muse FestivalWoo hoo, Muse, which is one of my favourite places in Canberra, is running its second Muse Festival this long weekend in Canberra. As last year, Mr Gums and I went to the opening event, Turn me on, last night -and it was different but also good. Different because last year’s opener, Women of the Press Gallery, was a panel discussion, while Turn me on comprised separate, short, roughly 10-minute talks by five speakers on the given topic, which was how they got turned on to politics or to the passion they have for their field of work. Muse was looking, in particular, for “the lightbulb moments and hidden drivers” behind the speakers’ passions for what they do.

Turn me on

The speakers were a varied bunch, but they had at least one thing in common – they’re “prominent locals”:

  • Michael Brissenden, political journalist and foreign correspondent for the ABC since 1987
  • Zoya Patel, founder of Feminartsy
  • Roland Peelman, director of the Canberra International Music Festival
  • Elizabeth Lee, Liberal MLA in Canberra’s Legislative Assembly
  • Jacob White, staffer for Federal Labor MP Andrew Leigh, and co-ordinator last year of the Australian Marriage Equality group’s postal survey campaign in the ACT

Michael Brissenden

Of the five speakers, Brissenden had the longest-standing Canberra cred having been born here in the 1960s, to parents who were part of the first big wave of academics coming to the ANU in the 1950s-1960s. He provided us with an entertaining picture of a Canberra very different to the one we know now, back when it was “six suburbs in search of a city”. There were few restaurants, so people made their own fun: they had parties. You would, he said, have historian Manning Clark “banging on” in one corner of a room, and poets AD Hope and David Campbell doing the same in another. What fun, eh? You needed, he said, a sense of humour to enjoy Canberra then.

He shared a couple of songs written by his father, RF Brissenden – “Canberra Blues” and “Gough and Johnny were lovers” (with its line “never trust a cur [Kerr]”) commenting on the 1975 dismissal. Being interested in politics, he said, was unavoidable in his house. Canberra is still a small place and can be suffocating at times. But it is also full of inspiring, intelligent people. No wonder, he said, they, like himself, keep coming back. (We know what he means.)

Zoya Patel

Zoya Patel, Festival MusePatel cut right to the chase. What turns me on, she said, is feminism. She then joked that there was a time – her early dating days – when her strong attachment to feminism was a turn off! Clearly though, the dates who reacted like that didn’t last, because her commitment to feminism remained strong.

She gave us a brief history of her trajectory as a feminist. She talked of her upbringing within a Fiji-Indian culture, where it was not considered normal for girls to have strong ideas, particularly political ones, and her staring to write, at the age of 15, for local feminist magazine, Lip Magazine. She spoke of how she’d been told that feminism was irrelevant, that women had won what they’d campaigned for. As a second-wave feminist from the 1970s, I remember being horrified by this attitude in the 1980s and ’90s, and am thrilled to see feminism on the rise again and in hands like Patel’s.

She talked about tipping-points that have kept her strong – such as encountering online trolling when she took Lip Magazine online – and about founding the cleverly named Feminartsy. She sees feminism as being about sisterhood, saying that “as many we are strong”. She’s pleased that feminism has gone from turn off to turn on!

Roland Peelman

Peelman, whom we had enjoyed earlier this week when he gave the pre-concert talk at Musica Viva, felt a little uncertain about his place in the group. He was not a politician, he said, but a musician, and not an Australian or a Canberran, but a Belgian. However, the thing about Peelman, who was also the artistic director of The Song Company for 25 years, is that he’s an engaging speaker.

He talked about attending a secular university in Ghent, which is still today a centre of positivist philosophy. This has informed his life he said. And, in one of those synchronicities we often talk about, he spoke of being on the barricades against missiles in Western Europe in the early 1980s. Regular readers here will remember our recent discussion about the Cold War on my review of Diana Blackwood’s Chaconne.

Peelman talked about the difference between Australia’s adversarial 2-party political system and the Belgian situation where government is made after the election (as has happened in Germany over recent months!) Talking to him afterwards, I suggested that the 2-party system may be breaking down with voters (here and elsewhere) increasingly voting for small parties. Peelman likes this form of “messy” democracy.

Finally, he talked about the politics of a small arts organisation (like The Song Company) battling big bureaucracy, and how they can survive despite the naysayers. Small arts companies do not work well within the constructs of economic rationalism. Music, he said, builds from community. And that’s as political as he’d get he said!

Elizabeth Lee

Local Liberal politician, Lee, started by noting how much we have in common despite our (political) differences.

What turned her on to politics or what encouraged her to chase a political career, she said, was her father. Korean-born, she grew up as the eldest of an all-girl family, so her father, she said, was a feminist from start. He told her that she was the needle, and her sisters the thread. She explained that her moving to Canberra to do Law at 18 years old was unusual for an Asian at that time. It means, though, that she has lived all her adult life here.

Lee then talked about how she went from not being interested in politics at university to working as a lawyer and getting involved in the Law Society, where she realised that she liked organising. Soon after, when she started work as a lecturer at the ANU, she joined the Liberal Party – because she agreed with the classic Liberal values which focus on “individual freedom and responsibility”. She described losing the 2012 election, and her father helping her see that politics seemed to be where she could contribute the most. She stood again in 2016 and won.

She also shared some disturbing examples of racist and sexist attacks she has faced, but said that she is committed to her (unsought for) leadership role as an Asian female politician.

Jacob White

Like Patel, White quickly identified the factors that led him to his political passion. He said an interest in process is something you are born with, and also that as the middle child of a family of five (with two older sisters and two younger) he got early practice as an agitator!

He also remembers being aware of the injustice of his Nana’s struggles. She was a single mum who had brought up 5 children including one with severe Down Syndrome. He described his early experience of activism, writing to local politicians when he was just 8 years old about lantana choking a play area – and succeeding in getting it removed. Finally, he talked about realising, when he was 11 or 12, that women were not for him, and soon seeing the injustices gay people lived with.

White said he was very involved in student politics, and from this experience came to work for Andrew Leigh. However, when they were all caught off-guard by the marriage equality postal vote, he took leave from this job to manage the campaign in Canberra.

He spoke about being from a small industrial town near Wollongong, with a father “in the steelworks”, and mother “at the RSL”. You don’t have to have a political background to do what he does he said, because “everyone’s life is inherently political.”

All in all, an engaging session, not the least because I got to hear and see some of Canberra’s new, young leaders, as well as seeing that some of the older hands still have things to offer!! Win-win, I’d say.

Oh, and the opening party drinks and canapes were great too – as you’d expect from Muse.

Thanks to Muse (particularly Dan and Paul) for another great event. As I’ve said before, what a great addition they’ve made to Canberra’s literary and arts scene.

Angharad at Tinted Edges has also posted on Festival Muse.

NOTE: Check the Muse link above for more Festival events.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Changing literary tastes (2)

My last Monday Musings post was on Changing literary tastes from the 1920s to 1940s, using newspaper articles I’d found in the National Library of Australia’s Trove. Today’s post draws on just one article from the 1950s. I’m choosing just one because it, unusually in my experience, has a by-line – for a person worth introducing – and because the article is so delightful.

Leon Gellert, 1920s, by May Moore (Presumed public domain,, via Wikipedia)

So, the by-line. It is Leon Gellert (1892-1977), but I can’t resist telling you that when I first heard his name all I could think of was a tragic epic poem I read as a child about the dog Gelert (sometimes Gellert). Being a dog lover, that tale of a faithful dog has dogged me (sorry!) so powerfully ever since that whenever I heard the name Leon Gellert I couldn’t get past the dog – until now.

Why now? Because the article I found in Trove titled “The decline of the bookcase” was so entertaining that I decided to shake off my childish memory and check the man out. I found him in the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB). Biographer Gavin Souter describes him as “soldier, poet and journalist”. Gellert was born in South Australia, and taught briefly before he enlisted with the AIF. He ended up at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915, was injured, and repatriated home in 1916 after which he returned to teaching. He wrote poetry during and after the war. Souter describes him as “Australia’s closest approximation to a Brooke or Sassoon”. His short, powerful poem, “The jester in the trench”, appears in Jamie Grant’s 100 Australian poems you need to know.

According to Souter his early promise was not sustained and he turned to journalism. In 1942 he became The Sydney Morning Herald‘s literary editor “and wrote a graceful column, ‘Something Personal’, for the Saturday book pages”. The article I found is one of these, so let’s look at it.

Published on 16 June 1951, it captured my attention because it starts off talking about bookcases, and what reader isn’t interested in them! He starts

RECENTLY I roamed the city in search of some ready-made bookshelves. It was an almost fruitless search. The few that came within the bounds of my requirements were pitifully stunted little things obviously designed by craftsmen who had never read a book in their lives. The top-most compartment reached no higher than a man’s waist and the lowest could be approached only by crawling on all fours.

I was confident I would enjoy reading this. He then talks about

glass-fronted book-cupboards; ungainly remnants from late Victorian days now raised to the peerage with the dubious rank of “antique.” These, doubtless, once held their stern leather-bound arrays of Scott and Thackeray and Carlyle, close-corseted in the gloom against casual and curious hands. But they were too prohibitive in price for my pocket and too full of shadows for my purpose. There is so much unlatching and probing to be undertaken that the extraction of a volume is like an obstetrical operation.

Hmm, we Gums rather like glass-fronted bookcases because of the dust factor – but we only have a couple (recently inherited), and he is right about the “unlatching and probing”. He continues in a similarly entertaining vein, pronouncing his preference for bookcases “of open countenance that smile their invitation across the whole length of a room.” This is the type we mostly have – floor to (nearly) ceiling, most double-stacked. Very convenient, but pretty dusty too! What are your favourite types of bookcases?

He progresses from describing various bookcases to discussing their dearth in contemporary homes. He says where once they had a place in every small home, now they are viewed with suspicion:

How often have I admitted a guest to hear him exclaim, with a tincture of mistrust, as he crossed the threshold for the first time, “Ah, I see you are a reader,” and that mark you, with no more evidence to guide him than a meagre rack of books in what is referred to with sweeping hyperbole, as the entrance hall!

Hands up if, like Gellert and us, your first of many bookcases is in your entrance “hall”.

And then he gets on to WHAT people are reading …

He says that in the past people all read the same sort of material – a wide mix encompassing the likes of Henry James, H. G. Wells, Thomas Hardy, Eden Phillpots and Stanley Weyman (who was also known, says Wikipedia, as “the Prince of Romance”). “Those beyond the pale”, he writes, “read Mr. Garvice“. I had to look him up too! He was a very popular writer of romance in the early twentieth century.

However, now, he says, readers are dividing into two groups, “those who read, let us say, Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, Graham Greene and Joyce Cary, and the vast mass who read what I believe are called ‘Westerners’.” What’s more, he suggests, these groups are contemptuous of each other. This is interesting. Is he right that this divide, one that still largely exists today, only started around the 1950s?

Anyhow, then, having mentioned “westerners”, which, according to the writers in my first post, were their way out, he moves on to detective novels. He wonders if they are the cause of the impermanence he’s identified. The detective fiction craze has been going for forty years he says. When will it stop? One of their attractions, he thinks, is that they are a game that can be played in private, like patience, and they have “something in common with the crossword puzzle”. He quite likes detective novels himself, but is concerned that, having lasted more than thirty years – his marker for “the most obstinate vogue in history” –  detective fiction will “establish itself as a durable department of literature.”

He trots out, too, a concern about what it means to love detective fiction. We deride melodrama, he says, but “the most outrageous complexity of treachery, murder, torture and rape is regarded, by the intellectual and the illiterate, as legitimate fun”. Is it really the harmless game people think, he asks? He then tells us that detective fiction is popular with world leaders. Hitler loved them, as do “the most distinguished statesmen in the English-speaking” world and “the most scholarly writers and the most immaculate ministers of religion”. They all “squander countless hours in company with M. Poirot and Lord Peter Wimsy”. And yet, he says, when people worry about child delinquency, it’s cinema and radio they blame!

He concludes by wondering whether the time could come when detective fiction is banned. He doesn’t really want to see that, but at least it could “help to reestablish our pride in the permanent companionship of good books”.

We now know that detective fiction has indeed become “a durable department of literature”, but I’d argue that we have also reestablished our “pride in the permanent companionship of good books” (if he was right that it had been lost). Putting aside for a moment economic issues, the interesting question here is how important to literary culture is “the permanent companionship of good books” – meaning ownership and storage in personal bookcases – versus the fact that people are reading (as he says people were in his time).

Festival Muse: Women of the Press Gallery

Muse FestivalMuse is one of my favourite places in Canberra. It’s a cafe-restaurant-winebar plus bookshop plus arts event space – self-described as “a meeting place for those who enjoy a grenache with their Grenville, and their Winton with a good washed rind”. They have offered many short, mostly afternoon events, in the 18 months of their existence, but this is their first festival. Mr Gums and I went to the opening event, Women of the Press Gallery. How great that they chose to begin with a woman-focused event in a week that contained International Women’s Day.

The event took the form of a conversation-style panel but first, the Festival was opened by the doyenne of (women) political journalists, Michelle Grattan. I put “women” in parenthesis because the qualification is not necessary – she’s a doyenne, full stop – and yet it’s relevant to the context of this event, if you know what I mean. She talked about her early days as a journalist in 1970s Canberra – and the role played by restaurants in journalists’ lives. Muse, she said, has taken this role to a new level, by merging food, books, politics and talk in one place. She did say more, but I want to focus on the event, so will just say that she opened Festival Muse, and we got on with it!

Women of the Press Gallery

The panel comprised:

  • Katina Curtis, political journalist and Canberra chief of staff with newswire AAP
  • Karen Middleton, The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent
  • Katharine Murphy, political editor of Guardian Australia
  • Primrose Riordan, political journalist, focusing on foreign affairs, with The Australian

The political

After a quick welcome and introduction from co-Muse-owner Dan, Karen Middleton opened proceedings,  by saying that she loved being “participating chair” because she got to chair the panel and contribute ideas as well! She said the topics they’d cover would be media, politics, and chicks in media and politics.

To get the conversation going, Middleton asked the panel whether they “take sides” in their writing. The ensuing conversation also took in how the media is changing, and the impact of this on journalists’ work. Each had slightly different perspectives, partly due to their different roles.

Katina Curtis, for example, works for a newswire service so she needs to frame her stories to make them saleable to different news outlets. She can’t therefore pick a side.

Primrose Riordan commented that tailoring stories to particular audiences is problematic. It impacts the quality of the journalism and affects what stories are chased. She talked about the push for “hits”, the desire for “clickbait” – and how this drives journalists to write stories that focus on emotionalism.

Katharine Murphy, who conversed with Charlotte Wood in my last post, commented that the centre has gone, leaving us with two extremes that repel each other. This loss of the centre has massive implications. She also argued that media should have values, because all facts are not the same. (We all loved that, of course.) Guardian Australia, she said, has a distinctive, progressive voice.

Karen Middleton commented on the missing centre, suggesting that the people who are disengaging most from politics are probably the centrists.

Riordan agreed, noting that people aren’t dealing well with what they disagree with. But she – who clearly wanted to make some political points about what’s happening to journalism itself – commented that journalism is also hollowed out. By this she meant the large-scale departure of experienced journalists before retirement age was resulting in the loss of their teaching/knowledge to the next generation.

Moving to a different – and interesting to me – tack, Murphy, with her long experience, talked about changes to the journalistic process. In the old print days, she said, she would file stories once a day. This provided the opportunity for journalists and their editors to choose the important stories. Now, though, filing tends to be continuous, because this is what you (that is, we readers) want. (I felt a bit accused at this point!) In this scenario, the NEW is prioritised over the IMPORTANT. We are all part of a social experiment, she said. In the early days of the transition from the traditional print cycle to the new live cycle, the journalism tended to be shoddy. However, she believes, with experience, it is improving.

This point regarding the prioritising of the new over the important gave me one of those light-bulb moments. Ah, yes, makes sense, I thought. In the rush to produce news, and particularly to beat your competitor in this “live cycle” world, there’s no time to explore the nuances, and analyse what’s really important. Later, but I’ll pop it in here, Riordan made some points about the negative impact of “free” journalism with its high level of advertisements and clickbait-driven content. We should value journalism and pay for it, she said.

The personal (is the political)

Middleton asked the panel for their greatest challenges (and here, to break things up a bit, I’ll dot-point):

  • Curtis talked about the constant need to file stories. It’s hard to get/be given the mental space to write something that feels well-informed, she said. The story changes as it is being written; the deadline is always now!
  • Riordan reiterated this point about the importance of investigative work (and referenced the movie, Spotlight, longingly!) Then she added her main challenge: “reading” what’s happening. Politicians can talk all day, she said, but journalists have to work out what is really going on.
  • Middleton concurred with Riordan’s point regarding what’s happening on the surface versus what’s going on underneath. She said journalists need to “read” the chamber in terms of the little things – facial expressions, note-passing, etc.
  • Murphy said that time was the big thing!

Next up, Middleton got onto the gender issue, asking the panel for their comments on life as female political journalists.

Curtis said that a friend had told her, before she joined the press gallery, that the women read and research while the men socialise and get news from the bar. She laughed that she finds herself doing the reading, and would rather like to get more news from the bar!

Riordan, ever the political one regarding journalists and journalism, commented on the challenge for mothers. Motherhood impacts careers. Men can stay late, while women usually can’t. This is still somewhat a barrier – though Curtis said that she feels lucky that the generation of women before her had forged the way so that being a mother and a journalist was now a little more normal. She was a little irritated though that though she (a mother of less than 18 months) has been covering education and childcare for 6 years, her male colleagues now suggest that she’s interested in those topics because she’s a mother.

Riordan also noted that the management of news organisations is still heavily male-dominated.

Murphy shared that when Michelle Grattan came to Canberra in 1973, she was one of the few women here – and had to do social pages! She was an important trailblazer. Murphy also stated that for women to prosper, they need to be better than men. They have to be persistent, resilient, tough, fair, and safeguard their reputation. She believes that some of Australia’s best journalism at present is coming from women.

Middleton asked the panel about life outside work. Riordan said that journalists have to be prepared to miss family events and that for press gallery journalists, “sitting weeks are insane”. Curtis said that the work is potentially all-consuming, but that having grown up in Canberra she has friends outside the profession which helps her separate. Murphy commented that she’s either “fully in” or “fully out”. This means that when she’s on leave, she completely disconnects from social media – and engages in her other interests.

The end

We then moved into Q&A, and while there were several questions, I’m going to share just one, the one which referred back to the loss of the centre. How, the questioner asked, can the middle be made more worthy (more interesting, I suppose, too)? Murphy suggested that it can be achieved by looking for opportunities to find common ground, by finding politicians and others who are more nuanced in their views. She commented that for many people politics is like religion, meaning it’s about belief not facts. For these people, if the facts don’t concur with their belief, they don’t listen. Hmm … that made me stop and think a bit about my own practice! Do I do this? I like to think not, but will have to watch myself …

Anyhow, moving right along, Curtis added that journalists feel what’s important but their editors don’t always agree. And Riordan commented on the diversionary tactics used by politicians such as putting out “announceables”  – like a new policy – to distract journalists from something else!

All in all, it was a lively evening spent in the company of intelligent, engaged and committed journalists. I learnt a lot about the pressures of modern journalism – and was entertained at the same time. Thanks Muse.

NOTE: Check out the Muse link above for more Festival events.

Louisa Atkinson, A voice from the country: January (Review)

Louisa Atkinson, as I wrote in a post a few years ago, was a pioneer Australian writer. She was a significant botanist, our first Australian-born woman novelist, and the first Australian woman to have a long-running column in a major newspaper. It was a natural history series titled A Voice from the Country which ran in The Sydney Morning Herald for 10 years from 1860. I’ve shared here a few natural history articles/essays written by Americans, such as John Muir, but never an Aussie one. That’s going to change here, now – for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because I can, given the articles are findable through Trove, and secondly because the Australian Women’s Writers Challenge plans to focus this year, among other things, on classic Australian women writers. You can’t be a more classic Aussie writer than our Louisa!

But, which of Louisa Atkinson’s many columns should I do? I read a few and decided on one from her first year. In fact, I think it might have been the very first in the series. It’s titled “January”, which makes it particularly appropriate this month. Atkinson was living in Kurrajong, on the lower slopes of the Blue Mountains, in “Fernhurst”, the house built by her mother.

Monaro region, in January

January in the Monaro, 2010s not 1860s

So, the piece is about what it says, January. She describes the birds and plants in particular that you see in January in her region. Here is the opening sentence:

A WARM drowsy month, without the opening promise of Spring or maturing riches of Autumn.

Beautiful don’t you think, and it perfectly catches the middle of the Australian summer, particularly when you read the next couple of sentences:

In dry seasons the grass is scorched and white, the dust flies along the road before the least puff of wind, much to the annoyance of the traveller. The observer of nature finds his field of observation limited, yet not altogether barren.

In other words, it is dry, more yellow I’d say than white, and there’s nothing much happening, nature-wise. “Much” though is the operative word, because it’s “not altogether barren”, as she goes on to show by describing, for example, the activity of various birds such as the “waterwagtail or dishwasher”, laughing jackasses, lowries. Now, here’s another reason I chose this piece – her language. There’s the obvious fact that Atkinson has an engaging way of writing about nature, but what I want to explore here is its unfamiliarity.

By this I mean unfamiliar expressions and names. Regarding the former, I often find in articles I locate through Trove, language that is more erudite than we see in today’s newspapers. It suggests a higher level of literacy in readers. Take, for example, Atkinson’s use of “ferruginous” to describe the colour of a fungus. We might find that word in a novel these days, but not, I expect, in a general interest newspaper column. Of course, it may also suggest that newspapers were geared more to the elite than to the general populace? I don’t know enough about newspaper history to say any more on this. Sometimes, it’s more that word usage has changed. For example, Atkinson writes that some young birds “essay flight”. We rarely see “essay” used in that sense these days. I love that reading these older articles can give us insight into other times beyond the subject matter of the writing.

The other unfamiliarity relates to her naming of things. I know what laughing jackasses and lowries are – kookaburras and crimson rosellas*, respectively – but these names aren’t commonly used now. However, I have no idea what a “waterwagtail or dishwasher” is. Is it the willie wagtail and nicknamed dishwasher because its tail swishing back and forth reminded people of a dish mop? So, I did a Google search, and found an article titled “21 Facts about Pied Wagtails” from UK’s Living with Birds website. Facts 6 and 7 are:

6. Few birds have as many country names as the pied wagtail. They range from Polly washdish and dishwasher to the more familiar Penny wagtail, Willy wagtail and water wagtail.

7. The origin of the washer names is a mystery, but it may be because women once washed clothes, as well as pot and pans, by a stream or village pump, the sort of place that pied wagtails also frequent.

So, not the action of their tail perhaps but the places they frequent? I’m not a bird expert, but my understanding is that this White or Pied Wagtail is a “vagrant” in Australia, and that what we call the willie wagtail is from a different family. Which one – if either of these – is Atkinson talking about? Regardless, my point is that reading past writing can trip us up when the writers described plants, animals or objects using terms or names we don’t use now. We have to be careful – particularly those of us not expert in subjects – about drawing wrong conclusions from our reading.

POSTSCRIPT, 31 Jan 2017: Pam (Travellin’ Penguin) checked out “dishwasher” through her bird contacts, and was pointed to the book Austral English, which says that it’s “an old English bird-name for the Water-wagtail; applied in Australia to the Seisura inquieta … the Restless Flycatcher”. It quotes from the 1827 Transactions of the Linnæan Society, that the bird “is very curious in its actions. In alighting on the stump of a tree, it makes several semi-circular motions, spreading out its tail …”.

Crimson Rosellas

Crimson Rosellas by Kevin Tostado, using CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Enough of that, though. Let’s get back to Atkinson and her description of the lowries (i.e. crimson rosellas).  They are common to my garden – and her writing captures them perfectly:

A flock of lowries, young and old, frequent the fields, whence the oaten hay was gathered, nor confine their depredations there, assisting themselves liberally to the ripening peas and beans, which the gardener intended for seed, and even pursuing these favourite morsels into a verandah where they are spread to dry. The flock presents a brilliant appearance ; the full plumaged birds are vivid crimson, blue, partially pied with black, whilst the nestlings are variegated with green.

And now to conclude I’m going to jump five years to a report in the The Sydney Morning Herald in January 1865 of a meeting of the Horticultural Society of Sydney. It reports on various attendees bringing all sorts of plant specimens to the meeting, most of them exotic, and then, towards the end, there’s this:

Miss Atkinson, of the Kurrajong, sent a jar of jam, of the Lisanthe sapida, with the following remarks –

“LISANTHE SAPIDA – A small shrub of the Epacris family, bearing a crimson fruit, enveloping a single stone; good bearer, crop lasts about two months or more, coming in in November. To make jelly—boil the drupes, adding a few spoonfuls of water; when soft strain the juice off, add one pound white sugar to a pint, and boil to jelly. The fruit makes a pleasant tart—the Lisanthe Sapida grows in poor sandstone ranges. If any member of the societv would like to cultivate the shrub, and cannot procure the fruits in their locality, it is to be met with in the Kurrajong.”

A vote of thanks was given to the exhibitors, and more especially to Miss Atkinson, who it was remarked had made herself most remarkable for her endeavours to bring colonial productions into notice.

The lisanthe (or lissanthe) sapida, aka native cranberry, is, as you might have guessed, a plant native to Australia. Lovely to see recognition, by her peers, of a woman, and one who clearly loved and promoted the natural environment in which she lived.

* Mountain lowry is an alternative name for the Crimson rosella but is not, I believe, the most common one, particularly in New South Wales, but readers can correct me if I’m wrong.

aww2017-badgeLouisa Atkinson
“A voice in the country: January”
in: The Sydney Morning Herald, 1 March 1860
Available: Online

Monday musings on Australian Literature: The Vagabond

Quite by accident – no, I tell a lie, it was through a link sent by a good friend (thanks Kate) – I came across “The Vagabond”, a mysterious journalist who wrote for Australian newspapers – primarily in Victoria – in the late 19th century. The link was for an article he wrote on sixpenny restaurants, but that article was published in the online journal Inside Story to coincide with the publication of The Vagabond papers (ed. Michael Cannon, Monash University Publishing, 2016).

So, who was this Vagabond? Well, for a start, he is significant enough to be included in the Australian National Biography (ADB), where he is listed under the name John Stanley James (1843-1896), born in Walsall, Staffordshire, England. If, however, you read contemporary obituaries for him, as I did before I found ADB’s entry, you would think he was Julian Thomas, born in Virginia, USA! If you continued to search Trove, though, you would find articles written the year after his death identifying him as John Stanley James. Apparently, as ADB tells it, he had a few fallings-out with his father, in England, and in 1872 went to the USA where he changed his name to Julian Thomas. He arrived in Sydney in 1875.

According to John Barnes (ADB), his early articles, published in Melbourne’s The Argus, were

on ‘the social life and public institutions of Melbourne from a point of view unattainable to the majority’. The most substantial of the series were based on his first-hand reports of what it was like to be ‘inside’ certain institutions: to gather material, he spent a day in the Immigrants’ Home, was admitted to the Benevolent Asylum and worked as the porter at the Alfred Hospital, an attendant at lunatic asylums and dispenser-cum-dentist at Pentridge gaol. His accounts of these institutions combined intimate knowledge of their day-to-day working with a breadth of perspective gained from his knowledge of other societies. His shrewd observation, practical judgments and suggestions for reform reveal a compassionate spirit behind his cultivated flamboyancy.

One of the obituaries I found in Trove referred to these articles:

His series of articles for the “Argus” descriptive of life in the benevolent asylums, hospitals, and finally the Pentridge prison, created a furore which had never been eclipsed by any work of the kind done here since.

This obituarist described him as having “A clear, crisp, epigrammatic style”.

Another described him as having “a fluent pen, a versatile imagination, and an interesting manner of personal comment” and also mentioned, albeit more measuredly, his institutional pieces:

his earlier series of Vagabond papers wherein from personal experience he revealed some of the abuses in the administration of penal establishments, lunatic asylums and charitable institutions, attracted considerable attention.

John Barnes sums him up this way:

Outwardly egotistical and reckless, he had a generous and sympathetic nature. Probably his early life had helped to develop in him a keen feeling for those in need, a feeling expressed in his best work and commemorated after his death in a memorial erected by public subscription.

The process of raising money for, and the erection of this memorial, is also documented in Trove.

In 1878, he was sent to New Caledonia to report on a native uprising. Barnes writes that “he shocked readers with details of the brutality of the French colonial administration which he condemned strongly”. These reports, plus those on his experiences in the New Hebrides and New Guinea, were published in his book Cannibals and Convicts (1886). Although he travelled again – including to China, Japan, British Columbia and the South Seas – Barnes argues that it’s his early Victorian pieces and those in this book that represent his best work.

I’ll leave the story of his life there … you can read more at the ADB link above or look for his articles in Trove yourself. Instead, I’m going to end by discussing his article on the sixpenny restaurants, which was published in the Argus on 27 May 1876, his early (well-regarded) years in Victoria.

The sixpenny restaurant

Not only did I enjoy the article for itself, but it reminded me of one I discussed earlier this year, George G Foster’s “The eating-houses”. It was published in New York in 1849, and discusses various types of eating-houses, including sixpenny ones. The articles are different overall, but both provide a picture of an active eating-out scene in 19th century western countries. Fascinating.

So, the Vagabond’s article. Interestingly, the version published in Inside Story starts about two paragraphs into the original published in The Argus. These first two paragraphs make a political statement about Australia’s need for labour, and the Vagabond has a proposition:

I would have printed one million handbills, exactly similar to those which any day, from 12 till 2, you will have thrust into your hands in the principal streets of Melbourne, and the wonders of which will strike an English labourer or mechanic dumb. Imagine poor Hodge, who lives on bread and bacon, and whose only idea of spending six-pence is to purchase a quart of ale, reading from the bill of fare that a breakfast with a choice of 10 hot dishes of meat, bread and butter ad libitum, and “two or three cups of tea or coffee;” a dinner with choice of six soups, 12 kinds of meat, including such epicurean luxuries as “beef steak pudding” or “stuffed ox-heart;” and six puddings or pies, with tea, coffee, and bread and butter, as at breakfast, may be had in Melbourne for 6d. a meal. The supper (which he reads may be had “both before and after closing of the theatres,” pleasantly suggesting that it is the custom for his class to patronise those places of amusement) is even more bewildering” stewed rabbit, “haricot mutton,” “curries,” and some 15 other dishes, with salad, beet-root, and tomatoes. A land which can furnish such delights for 6d., must surely be the working man’s paradise (my emph).

This argument leads into the article proper, which starts by stating that “Most men have to suffer a perpetual combat between their tastes and their exchequer”.

Vagabond describes his surprise at the quantity of food he can buy for 6d. at these sixpenny restaurants. It resulted in his doing a tour of cheap restaurants. He found they are pretty much alike – “the dishes tend to be stereotyped, and the cooking is much the same in all”. There can be, particularly in summer, “more flies in the dishes than refined prejudices might fancy”, and sausages, he writes, are such “bags of mystery” that the “enormous consumption” of them is “convincing proof that faith is strong in the colonies”. Love it!

Workers Cafe, Porto

Workers’ cafe, Porto, Portugal

After discussing the food in some detail, he then describes the establishments, making an interesting observation:

Sixpenny restaurants vary a good deal in style; there are some in the principal thoroughfares which shine with plate-glass, white linen, and pretty waiter girls. But all this extra display, and the cost of the handbills which are so freely circulated, cause perceptible diminution in the quantity or quality of the viands. The places where one really feeds best are the smaller restaurants, kept by married couples, who do the cooking themselves … These are chiefly patronised by working men.”

This brought to mind my experience as a traveller: we’ve often had the best meals in little ma-and-pa run restaurants, in worker-patronised restaurants. We tend not to frequent those places at home because they offer the sort of food we might cook ourselves but when we travel, these places can be the best for learning about local food and life.

But, I digress … Vagabond continues to discuss the experience of dining in cheap restaurants. He notes the “tricks” customers employ to obtain more food, and suggests dining after the rush makes it easier for diners to chat together. He then describes the patrons – and it’s a fascinating, multicultural bunch – before moving on to the staff, the waiters who “are refugees from all classes” and the cooks, most of whom began “with making damper”.

He concludes by mentioning that some taverns are setting themselves up as rivals to the sixpenny restaurants. They give “hot lunches with pint of ale, from 12 to 2 daily, for 6d”, but the food mostly comprises “a plate of corned beef and potatoes” and “you get altogether about half the amount of food you would at a sixpenny dinner”. However, these places are frequented by young clerks, who, he says, are too proud to be seen in a sixpenny restaurant. He concludes his article with:

It would be far better for them if they would put their dignity on one side, and take a dinner in a sixpenny restaurant, which up to this time I consider to be the most wonderful example of Victorian progress and prosperity which I have met with.

I can see what Barnes means by “a compassionate spirit behind his cultivated flamboyancy”. I could read more of Vagabond.


Washington Irving, The adventure of the German student (Review)

Washington Irving, c. 1855-60 (Copy daguerreotype by Mathew Brady, reverse of original by John Plumbe. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Washington Irving (1783-1859) is best known for his short stories “Rip Van Winkle” and “The legend of Sleepy Hollow”, but in fact he was a prolific writer and, according to Wikipedia, is often credited as being America’s first “man of letters”. I was fascinated to read in Wikipedia that, as well as being a writer, he worked as a diplomat in Europe. He helped other writers, promoted the writers’  rights in issues like copyright, and he was admired by the likes of Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron and Charles Dickens. I guess Americans know all this, but I didn’t.

However, I have had a recent encounter with Irving, before the story in this post that is, because I dipped into his Tales of the Alhambra (1832) when we visited that part of Spain in 2013. I was fascinated by his description of a place that is not totally unfamiliar to an Australian:

its scenery is noble in its severity, and in unison with the attributes of its people; and I think that I better understand the proud, hardy, frugal and abstemious Spaniard, his manly defiance of hardships, and contempt of effeminate indulgences, since I have seen the country he inhabits.

And I loved his desire to travel with an open heart and mind:

but above all we laid in an ample stock of good humor, and a genuine disposition to be pleased, determining to travel in true contrabandista style, taking things as we found them, rough or smooth, and mingling with all classes and conditions in a kind of vagabond companionship.

That’s the spirit, as Son Gums would say.

Anyhow, let’s get to the story, “The adventure of the German student”, that was recently published in the Library of America’s Story of the Week program. It came from his collection, Tales of a traveller, which comprised essays and short stories published in 1824 under his pseudonym, one of several he used, Geoffrey Crayon. This collection was divided into four “books”, and our story was in the first, titled  “Strange stories by a nervous gentleman”.

Most of the stories are set in Germany and Paris, with “The adventure of the German student” being set in Paris during the French Revolution. The opening lines are:

On a stormy night, in the tempestuous times of the French revolution, a young German was returning to his lodgings, at a late hour, across the old part of Paris. The lightning gleamed, and the loud claps of thunder rattled through the lofty, narrow streets …

The story, you may not be surprised to hear, is Gothic in tone. LOA’s notes say this is surprising because his “supernatural tales are known more for gentle whimsy and wry satire rather than the Gothic horror found in this story”. They tell us that this story predates Edgar Allan Poe “by a good twenty years” and that American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft admired it for diverging from his “lighter treatment of eerie themes”.

It’s a simply told story. After that opening, the narrator decides that before continuing he needs to tell us a bit about this German student, Gottfried Wolfgang. He was “a young man of good family” but was, perhaps, a little too sensitive and suggestible for his own good. During his studies he had “wandered into those wild and speculative doctrines which have so often bewildered German students” and he starts to feel that “there was an evil influence hanging over him; an evil genius or spirit seeking to ensnare him and ensure his perdition”. His friends decide he needs “a change of scene” and send him off to Paris.

There, Gottfried starts by enjoying the revolutionary spirit but soon all the blood gets him down. In true Gothic style he lives in “a solitary apartment” in a gloomy street not far from the monastic walls of the Sorbonne”. He visits “the great libraries of Paris, those catacombs of departed authors”, becoming a “literary goul (sic), feeding in the charnel house of decayed literature”.

However, he also has “an ardent temperament” but is too shy to approach women so, being of fanciful bent, he dreams up a woman of “transcendent beauty”. She haunts him in the way such visions do to “the minds of melancholy men”.

Now, remember, this is set during the French Revolution, so as the story progresses a guillotine appears where our student meets his dream-woman. He brings her to his home and is, of course, totally enamoured. Fortunately, these are modern times:

It was the time for wild theory and wild actions. Old prejudices and superstitions were done away; every thing was under the sway of the “Goddess of Reason.” Among other rubbish of the old times, the forms and ceremonies of marriage began to be considered superfluous bonds for honourable minds. Social compacts were the vogue. Wolfgang was too much of a theorist not to be tainted by the liberal doctrines of the day.

Ha-ha! Who needs “sordid forms to bind high souls together” he tells the young woman. So he talks her into immediately pledging herself to him. And here, I’m afraid I’ll leave you, but let’s just say that things don’t quite work out for Gottfried, or his dream-woman. There are several layers in which we can read the story – political, philosophical, psychological, sexual, feminist – but all point, at some level at least, to satire of the times.

In 1860, Irving wrote this about his stories:

I am not, therefore, for those barefaced tales which carry their moral on the surface, staring one in the face; they are enough to deter the squeamish reader. On the contrary, I have often hid my moral from sight, and disguised it as much as possible by sweets and spices, so that while the simple reader is listening with open mouth to a ghost or a love story, he may have a bolus of sound morality popped down his throat, and be never the wiser for the fraud…

An interesting, thoughtful man, this Irving.

Washington Irving
“The adventure of the German student”
First published: In Tales of a traveller (1824)
Available: Online at the Library of America

George G. Foster, The eating-houses (Review)

Some of you will know that Mr Gums and I love to eat out. So, when I saw a Library of America (LOA) Story of the Week titled “The eating-houses” by one George G Foster appear in my in-box at the end of last year, I knew I had to read it. I just had to find the time to slip it in. I eventually did, and here I am.

The first thing to say about it is that those of us who thought our era of conspicuous dining-out was a new thing are wrong. Foster writes in the opening paragraph of his article that:

We once undertook to count these establishments in the lower part of the City, but got surfeited on the smell of fried grease before we got half through the first street, and were obliged to go home in a cab. We believe, however, that there can’t be less than a hundred of them within half a mile radius of the Exchange. They are too important a “slice” [see publication details below to understand this reference] of New York to be overlooked …

This reminded me of my return last year to the little suburban shopping centre of my teen years – Wahroonga, in Sydney. I looked across the street, from where I was standing, to the local supermarket on the corner and ran my eyes down from it to the other corner. Just a short distance. And it was wall-to-wall cafes with nary another business in between. That was just that little side of that street. There were a couple of cafes on my side, and around both corners, and across the other street as well. Amazeballs as the young would say! Clearly Mr Gums and I are not alone in our predilection for eating out.

Anyhow, back to Foster. You might have gathered from my excerpt that he was not much in favour of these establishments, and you’d be right. He satirises them, and their denizens, pretty mercilessly. He clearly thinks home-cooked meals are  better – “the fare is generally bad enough — not nearly equal to that which the cook at Home above Bleecker* saves for the beggars”. He ridicules their lack of style and taste:

It is really wonderful how men of refined tastes and pampered habits, who at home are as fastidious as luxury and a delicate appetite can make them, find it in their hearts—or stomachs either—to gorge such disgusting masses of stringy meat and tepid vegetables, and to go about their business again under the fond delusion that they have dined.

He categorises the three main styles of eating-houses – satirically referencing the great Swedish botanist and taxonomist Linnæus – and satirises the diners. He describes a journalist ordering “rosegoose”: “when goose leaps suddenly in front of a poet of the Press, who ordered it probably through a commendable preference for a brother of the quill”.

At the cheap Sweenyorum “sixpenny eating-house” style of place, you only get a spoken menu which, he says, “does away with lying in print, to which bills of fare as well as newspapers are too much addicted”. Still, beware here, he advises, of added extras, or your sixpenny cut will suddenly be “seven shillin'”! Just order “a small plate of roast beef mixed, (this means mashed turnips and potatoes in equal quantities)”, add some bread perhaps, and a glass of free water. Then you will “pay one shilling for the whole, and go about your business like a refreshed and sensible man”.

He briefly mentions the cake and coffee shops which are open all night, and therefore frequented by journalists, firemen, and the like. He reserves special praise for the latter:

They are generally far more moderate than politicians and less noisy than gentlemen. At the first tingle of the fire-bell they leap like crouching greyhounds, and are in an instant darting through the street towards their respective engine-houses—whence they emerge dragging their ponderous machines behind them, ready to work like Titans all night and all day, exposing themselves to every peril of life and limb, and performing incredible feats of daring strength, to save the property of people who know nothing about them, care nothing for them, and perhaps will scarcely take the trouble to thank them.

Oh dear – I do hope their “plate of biscuits with a lump of butter in the belly for three cents, and a cup of coffee for as much more” provided them with enough sustenance! And did you note the reference to politicians?

His final paragraph is reserved for the “expensive and aristocratic restaurant of which Delmonico’s is the only complete specimen in the United States”. I was rather intrigued by this because he argues that, at a place like this, you will get

a dinner which is not merely a quantity of food deposited in the stomach, but is in every sense and to all the senses a great work of art.

“A great work of art” is how many of our top chefs like to see their food today. Paying large sums for food like this seems, in one sense, insensitive. And yet, does art have to last forever, or can it be enjoyed in the moment before we move on? I’m still pondering this.

The interesting thing is, as LOA’s notes tell us, that Foster’s “preference for high-society haunts like Delmonico’s ultimately caused his downfall”. He was imprisoned for forging cheques, and spent 9 months in prison the year before he died. His obituary in the New York Times described him as

a remarkable example of the worthlessness of a brilliant talent unguided by a moral purpose, or a decent regard for the proprieties of civilized society.

Do consider reading this article. It’s short and entertaining – and is a fascinating piece of 19th century social history.

George G. Foster
“The eating-houses”
First published: In New York in slices, by an Experience Carver, 1849.
Available: Online at the Library of America

* A residential area of New York.